Who controls it? A few large players dominate much of the online world, but the internet is healthier when it is controlled by many.

An important topic for the City of New York involves the issue of decentralization and how it impacts New Yorkers as they access the internet through their local internet service provider (ISP).

The Mayor’s Office of the CTO is tasked with achieving the Mayor’s OneNYC goal that all New Yorkers have access to high-speed, affordable internet. In 2018, the City released “Truth in Broadband: Access and Connectivity in New York City,” a first-of-its-kind report to understand the state of broadband in NYC, drawing from national data and measuring the current state in terms of equity, performance, affordability, privacy, and choice. The choice section directly lays out the state of decentralization and internet access. Notably, the report finds that that “more than two thirds of households (69%) and nearly three quarters of small businesses (72%) have only one or two options of broadband providers.” This lack of choice has tremendous implications for New Yorkers, driving up prices and resulting in inequitable coverage and poor service.

To address this, the Mayor’s Office of the CTO has made choice a priority in their universal broadband planning effort, stating that “at a minimum, every household and business should have three options for broadband service to avoid a duopoly and ensure no area of the city faces a monopoly.”

There are also several important local efforts to increase and improve internet service options on a community level.

  • Located in south Brooklyn, Red Hook Initiative is a comprehensive youth development and community-building organization that broke ground defining community-owned WiFi in NYC with its Digital Stewards initiative. “Creating Change from Within,” RHI runs a paid, 8-month training for young people to learn how to maintain and promote the Red Hook WiFi network, a free wireless network that RHI built to fortify local resiliency and span the digital divide. With the long-term goal of providing Red Hook NYCHA residents with free WiFi, RHI kicked off its connectivity effort by providing 38 business partners on commercial corridors with Red Hook WiFi. In 2018 Red Hook WiFi was accessed over 8,500 times, demonstrating the power of local set-up and local control.
  • Following the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, in 2014, the New York Economic Development Corporation issued the RISE:NYC competition to fund resiliency technology projects to better prepare small businesses for destructive natural disasters. One of the selected winners included the Resilient Communities from the New America Foundation, an initiative to create a locally controlled WiFi network that is supported by community members through their Digital Stewards program, which pays community members to maintain the network. These resilient networks are designed to ensure that small businesses still have access to critical communications networks in the wake of future natural disasters should the large internet service providers go out of service again.
  • Silicon Harlem is a social venture transforming Harlem into a technology and innovation hub, from establishing co-working spaces and gigabit infrastructure (high-speed connectivity) to securing investment capital and hosting monthly meetups. By growing a local tech ecosystem, Silicon Harlem advocates for all citizens to participate in the digital economy. In this way, decentralization is about knowledge, access, and design: Silicon Harlem is the first company to establish “Community as a Platform” (CaaP), which means community is involved in the planning and deployment of technology throughout the process. They also launched Gigabit Harlem with broadband providers. To date, over 10 locations now use fiber infrastructure to provide ultraspeed options to business and residents.
  • NYC Mesh is another local effort that creates a volunteer-run network bypassing traditional cable operators, helping New Yorkers get cheaper, faster, and more secure internet access. This project uses high-­bandwidth sector antennas, internet exchange points, mesh protocols, and solar batteries to create a decentralized network.

Finally, net neutrality was a big decentralization policy topic for the City of New York in 2018. In the wake of the federal repeal of net neutrality protections, the City led a coalition of cities across the country to commit to not purchase internet service from any provider that violates net neutrality. While the legal future of net neutrality is still to be determined, the City was able to combine forces with a distributed group of cities to leverage collective power against a federal policy that would hurt New Yorkers.

Meet Max

“equal, unthrottled access to the internet is critical for a level playing field"

Max Sevilia is the Director of External Affairs for the NYC Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer. An experienced advocate for civil rights, Max builds coalitions and runs campaigns with other cities to advance and protect digital rights for all. Last year, Max led over 200 US cities fighting for policies that expand access to and adoption of a free, open internet. By championing an open internet and equal access for its residents, Max stems the tide of attacks by powerful forces on people's digital rights and freedoms.

Tell us about your work.

In my role as the Director of External Affairs, I represent NYC at the national level on issues related to technology and telecommunications. I also build coalitions between like-minded cities interested in collaborating around specific issues, such as net neutrality and digital rights.

In 2014, I joined Mayor de Blasio as Director of the Federal Legislative Affairs Office, and internet policy was already a major policy priority for NYC. But in 2016, it took on a whole new meaning when FCC Chairman Pai began his tenure by undoing the critical modernization of the Lifeline program. This was an important national subsidy that enabled low-income communities to access broadband services. About half of NYC residents were eligible for this program at that time and NYC successfully advocated for it to be expanded.

Then, when the Trump administration swiftly moved to overturn net neutrality protections in 2017, NYC was positioned to act fast and show leadership. Our first step was partnering with colleagues across city government to communicate that this was bigger than a “tech issue” – it affects all areas of life, including the ability to apply for jobs, enroll in city services, or even just do homework. City residents need access to the internet for critical information related to job opportunities, for education, to stay connected to friends and family, and to start new businesses, among many other reasons. Equal, unthrottled access to the internet is critical for a level playing field.

As we considered how to best respond to this alarming policy change, we saw our purchasing power as significant leverage to hold technology companies to account, and to do the right thing by continuing to follow net neutrality protections. We understood that a national municipal commitment to contract only with Internet Service Providers respecting net neutrality – an open and free internet – could drive national policy, and counter ill-advised decisions from Washington, DC. In NYC alone we spend over $600 million annually to provide internet service to city employees and to offer city services. So, we convened an ad hoc coalition, starting with eight cities committed to only purchasing from broadband providers that honor net neutrality principles. Now, this coalition is over 130 cities..

By partnering with the Free Press Foundation and a broad coalition of NGOs, we built a grassroots movement that engaged everyday residents to write to their mayors to encourage them to join the coalition. Over 80,000 letters were sent, and the coalition grew to over 200 cities in 41 states representing more than 25 million people.

What are you proud of?

I am really proud to be part of a team that recognizes that internet access, adoption, and new technologies will determine the future. Together, we are leading the fight for better policies to make sure that New Yorkers, and all Americans, reach their full potential.

What challenges persist to a decentralized internet – locally and beyond?

We are fighting multiple battles to protect the internet, including the above-mentioned priority to keep it free and open. Our efforts now extend to protecting digital privacy and local authority when it comes to legislating over cutting-edge technologies like smart cities and 5G technology. NYC has focuses on these issues through the Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer. However, this role is still fairly uncommon in many cities throughout the world. There needs to be a lot of coordination between cities globally to advocate for their role in protecting digital rights.

How can NYC be an active partner in this work?

Universal access is the foundation for ensuring digital equity, therefore we have to invest time and resources towards ensuring that all people have access to high-speed, affordable broadband. We will also continue to lead on other important technology issues, and partner with aligned cities and organizations. For example, in NYC, we have a thriving small business community. Removing net neutrality hurts startups and other economic ventures because it is critical to allowing small businesses entrance into the internet marketplace, giving them a fair chance to reach potential customers.

Final Word

One-size-fits-all policies dictated from Washington on behalf of powerful corporations weaken citizen rights and endanger the experimentation, innovation, and economic development that happens at the local level. When it comes to deploying new technologies, cities are best positioned to determine how to equitably distribute and govern. Recently, we joined the cities of Amsterdam and Barcelona to form the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights, an international coalition of cities focused on advancing and defending their residents’ human rights when they go online. We’re excited about this new initiative that comprehensively and globally extends NYC’s leadership for a fair and equitable digital world. We must remain committed to driving policies that create opportunity for all and that move us all forward.

Meet Houman

“with decentralized and adaptable community-led networks, we build an infrastructure of hope”

Houman Saberi is deputy director of the Resilient Communities Initiative. Working in partnership with anchor organizations in five storm-vulnerable neighborhoods in NYC’s flood plains, Houman supports the local creation of community wireless networks. To date, 30 local residents in partner neighborhoods have been trained as Digital Stewards to build and maintain WiFi networks designed to prepare communities for future storms, floods, and stresses. With portable access points, battery packs, and locally hosted applications, these decentralized networks demonstrate an adaptable approach to infrastructure and bring storm-hardened broadband connections to 60 small businesses and their neighbors. They also provide a learning platform for residents to install and maintain local information hubs. Resilient communications networks are crucial before, during, and after a disaster for people to have access to information that can save lives and livelihoods.

Tell us about your work.

In 2012, Superstorm Sandy exposed the weaknesses of NYC’s infrastructure, as power, transport, and telecommunications systems failed millions of residents across the city. In the Far Rockaways, up to 50% of residents were without power three weeks after the storm. In Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, 15,000 people registered for FEMA assistance after the storm. In Red Hook, Brooklyn, where cell phone and internet service were disrupted for weeks, a community WiFi network became the nexus for communication and relief efforts. Local anchor organization the Red Hook Initiative had used the Detroit Community Technology Project’s Digital Stewards program as a model to start its own small WiFi pilot project in in the months before Sandy, but after, the network proved crucial to the neighborhood’s storm response. It became proof of concept for the work we do across NYC.

In 2016, New America’s Resilient Communities Initiative was awarded funding from the City’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) to build resilient networks for preparedness, recovery, and local small-business development. Through our Digital Stewardship program, developed with the Allied Media Projects in Detroit, and using Portable Network Kits (battery-powered, meshable local server/hotspot kits), we train local organizations how to build resilient WiFi networks that are entirely owned and operated by the community.

How it works: in each partner neighborhood, a community anchor organization trains six to eight local residents as “Digital Stewards” who learn both the hardware and software of WiFi networking, like installing antennas and routers on the rooftops of small businesses in their community. They also learn community-organizing skills that draw from Detroit Digital Justice Principles: emphasizing access, participation, common ownership, and healthy communities.

Beyond technology, we empower people to use their WiFi networking knowledge to facilitate human relationships. Each community organization holds events and spreads awareness to encourage local use and adoption of its network. We work with partners to envision how community networks can strengthen neighborhoods and solve local problems, beyond simply gaining access to the internet. Each of these community organizations is a physical hub for people to connect, a place to build relationships based on trust. Ultimately, we view resiliency as a community-led process of transformation – much more than simply returning to a previous condition after a natural or man-made disaster. Our digital and environmental futures are interlinked, and by building decentralized, flexible, and adaptable community-led networks we build more than a communication tool – we build an infrastructure of hope. The internet is healthy when the physical infrastructure is decentralized to support the knowledge and control that local residents need to build their own.

What are you proud of?

Three neighborhoods have started the installation process and two networks are almost complete! This comes after two and half years spent on partnership development, training, community outreach, network designs, and bureaucratic delays. Moving from an abstract concept to concrete installation is incredibly fulfilling. I’m proud of our team, our community partners, the Digital Stewards, and small businesses participating in this project. Eventually, people will see how this process of building community networks has shifted their relationship to the internet from being passive consumers to being producers of it. In other words, don’t wait for the internet – build it.

What challenges persist to a decentralized internet – locally and beyond?

Right now, everything about the internet makes us passive consumers. We’ve lost agency. We have to reconceive what’s possible – for the future of the web and our resilient communities. Trust takes time, and decentralization, given its bespoke nature, makes it all take longer.

How can NYC be an active partner in this work?

We’d love to see a city-sponsored program that supports Digital Stewardship and formally links it to a digital workforce development ecosystem. Decentralized, community-built networks have the potential can help with local capacity-building and long-term equity on multiple levels, not just in terms of technology skills. These networks can serve as empowering platforms to advance community health and local leadership development, as well as resident engagement with the City. We’ve seen this happen with our Digital Stewards already.

Final Word

It’s not always clear what connectivity looks like on a local level, but decentralization initiatives can reveal the biases and nuances that exist at the granular level of a city block, which are typically ignored in centralized, top-down systems. The benefit of community-led projects is that real needs can be addressed in a collaborative manner. As neighborhood and environments change along with the climate, we need flexible infrastructure that can move and adapt. Negotiating the tension between what’s technically efficient and what is socially viable is a bridge to novel ideas that strengthen local ownership through decentralized action.